So, which one do I choose?
The present tense is ideal for emotional reads, thrillers, horrors and anything where you want your reader to feel, gulp and sigh with the narrator. For an even stronger effect combine present tense with first person POV (check this post on POV if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
Check out the beginning of “I’ll give you the sun” by Jandy Nelson to see what I mean:
“This is how it all begins. With Zephyr and Fry -reigning neighborhood sociopaths- torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white hot panic.”
Things to keep in mind when using the present tense:
- If the narrator is seven, they cannot speak like Sheldon
- The vocabulary has to be appropriate for the place and time the story occurs, even more so than when using past tense. For example, they didn’t say OMG or ugh in 1992 (to check if a word is appropriate time-wise check this post)
- If combined with a first person POV remember that the narrator can only know what they know, not what’s going on on everyone’s head (again, see post on POV)
Things to keep in mind when using the past tense:
- You can make the narration feel more in the now by mixing in dialogue (which will always be in the present tense, here’s the post on writing and formatting dialogue) and thoughts (remember to italicize, here’s the post on formatting in general). You can even talk about things that will happen in the future!
- If you have to describe something that happened before the time of narration, use the past perfect (had+past. For irregular verbs you want to use the past participle–sing, sang, sung). For example…
See? In the sentence above “was about to” tells us something will happen in the future, while “had gotten” tells us something happened in the past.
Regardless of your tense choice, BE CONSISTENT!
I wrote my novel in the present, can I switch to past or vice versa?
Panic not. Been there, done that. Everything is possible, but you have to be methodical and come to terms with the fact that it will take you at least five rounds of editing to catch all the wrong verbs.
Just keep writing ^_^
PS I am working on a book collecting all of my posts on writing, editing, and marketing and I'm planning to give it away for free as soon as it's ready. Register for the mailing list to know when it's ready!